Monday, 17 January 2011

BP: "Beyond Petroleum" and its Broken Promises

 Design by: Ross Robinson

Oil men are hardly known for their humility. Ever since the black stuff began to be exploited on a mass-industrial scale at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, gradually usurping coal as the carbon fuel of choice, they have blustered and battered their way to economic and political supremacy across the globe. They have happily undermined democratic governments and movements, sponsored corrupt governments of the most odious kind, such as the House of Ibn Saud in the Arabian peninsula, and happily drilled the environment into oblivion. They have worked without regard to the consequences for both people and planet - witness the Ogoni's travails with the Shell oil company and the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria. In addition, by frustrating anything that threatened this supremacy, such as fuel efficient cars using (potentially) clean energy, the oil industry has shown its moral bankruptcy, just as its profits have soared to record levels.

Of course, with massive funds ploughed into public relations and political lobbying, they have been adept at ensuring that they appear to be on the side of "ordinary people". In the UK, both in 2002 and again now, consumer anger resulting from price rises driven mainly by the oil companies themselves is being deflected onto the Government's fuel duties, rather than on oil companies' soaring profit margins. And likewise, in the USA, any attempts by progressive politicians to restrain the carbon economy, including preventing dangerous exploration such as the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf, have been met with the most outrageous responses likening them to national enemies and traitors. It is little surprise to find that, just weeks after the Gulf disaster, Sarah Palin and her Tea Party allies like Rand Paul were happily dissimulating their way to electoral victory on the back of substantial funding from, among other oil conglomerates, BP, owners of the stricken oil rig.

And there could be no finer example of politics firmly in the pockets of Big Oil than this chillingly bizarre tirade from the 2008 Republican Party Convention.
BP, previously known as British Petroleum, but now in effect a large multinational well above the scope of control of any national government, has a dreadful record on so many counts. For example, in its original guise as the (entirely British owned) Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in 1953, it persuaded then British Premier Winston Churchill and the American Government to sponsor a coup d'etat to overthrow the democratic government of Iran and impose the brutal dictatorship of the Shah. Why? Simply because the elected Premier planned to nationalise the oil industry after nearly fifty years during which Anglo-Persian had been despoiling his country of its biggest asset with barely any payment made to Iran itself.

Later, in the early 2000s, as fears of global warming increased and demands for curbs on the runaway carbon economy grew, BP came up with a new wheeze. Oil would not last forever, they admitted. And so "BP" no longer stood for British Petroleum, but rather "Beyond Petroleum". They were not an oil company at all: no, rather, they were an energy company. And so they announced investment in alternative energy technology development, from carbon capture to solar power and biomass. Why, had we not noticed that even their company logo had always been green coloured - how could we possibly doubt them?
Except that the proportion of investment into new technologies was and remains utterly tiny compared to that for oil and gas, as evidenced in 2008 when new CEO Tony Hayward effectively restated the fundamental commitment to oil. Unsurprisingly, if anything, this commitment has increased. In the face of the growing evidence that we are now around the moment of "Peak Oil", BP and others have sought more and more ways of extracting oil from terrain which previously would have been uneconomic for them to do so. Deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been joined by similar projects all over the world - among many other places, off the west coast of Africa, off Indonesia, and off the north-west coast of Scotland. Now, just a few days ago, BP have sold a 5% stake in their ownership to Russian oil company, Rosneft, in order to begin drilling in the previously unspoiled Arctic.

Deepwater drilling anywhere is exceedingly dangerous - the weather can overwhelm the most sophisticated of human technology; or, as with the Deepwater Horizon, human error, driven by cost-cutting and profit-seeking, can lead to accidents with devastating consequences. Although technology has improved in recent years, as the Gulf disaster has shown, remedying faults at phenomenal depths is difficult in the extreme. In the Arctic, it may well be impossible.

Yet, clapping their hands in delight at the retreat of the northern iceshelf as global warming grips, the oil companies are relentlessly pursuing projects to extract oil and gas in more difficult and more sensitive environments. Product demand is surging with the rise of the emergent BRIC* economies, and as supplies from our normal sources get tighter (we use around 30 times more oil than we discover each year now), the consequent rise in price makes drilling in such difficult conditions more affordable for profit-maximising companies.

Drilling gets into deeper and deeper water

However, it is no less dangerous to their workers, to local communities or the ecology of the surrounding regions. And of course the ultimate irony is that as ice-melt caused by man-made global warming makes drilling in the Arctic feasible, the response of the so called Beyond Petroleum BP is not to anxiously see this seminal environmental disaster as a spur to urgent investment in alternative, clean technologies. Rather, it is viewed as a golden opportunity to grab a bigger share of the oil market.

We cannot prevent runaway global warming and preserve our human civilisation by depending on the goodwill and foresight of the oil industry. Time and again, they have shown their interest is solely in shareholder profit and managerial bonuses. After some desultory handwringing over disasters like Deepwater Horizon, the Prudhoe Bay spill, the Exxon Valdez disaster  and Amoco Cadiz, they have carried on as before. They have colluded in suppressing protest and human rights, involved us in wars like Iraq, employed mercenaries to attack trade unions and local communities, and used sophisticated political lobbying to ensure they remain unconstrained in their activities. Governments may talk of regulation, but any they enact are normally little more than window dressing - the magnates remain untamed.

Multinationals and the market will not deliver the change we need - as oil becomes scarcer, it will become more and more profitable to sell. Developing renewable energy will not be in the interests of these companies because their sole raison d'etre is to maximise their short to medium term profits. The dictates of capitalism incredibly mean that their objective is not even to ensure their own long term success - few of them have strategic plans stretching beyond the next five or ten years. So for the action we need to curtail the carbon economy and invest seriously in cleaner, renewable energy, we need to turn to governments and politics - new, green politics. Only then, will we ever rid ourselves of our carbon addiction and really get beyond petroleum. 

* BRIC = Brazil, Russia, India and China
"My Well came in big and there ain't a dang thing you gonna do about it!"
Thanks to Ross Robinson for permission to use his imaginative logo at the start of the blog. You can get the tee-shirt (or stickers) here:

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